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                              Departures and Replacements: Are
                              Sociology Departments Downsizing in a
                              Period of State Budget Shortfalls?


     March 2004

A recent series of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that academic
departments are downsizing as retirements accelerate and “hiring freezes abound.” A
major reason for downsizing is the decline in state higher education budgets. During the
mid to late 1990s, state higher education budgets grew. By FY 2000, the circumstances
changed and more state’s higher education budgets did not keep pace with inflation than
those that did. In 2003, state legislators passed the smallest increases in higher education
appropriations in more than a decade and, in 2004, state spending on higher education
declined for the first time in 11 years. State budget shortfalls and declining stock
portfolios have affected scholarly disciplines in both the humanities and the sciences,
including English, history, physics, and math. Interviews with department chairs suggest
that teaching loads are increasing, as specialties are being cut, and temporary faculty are
being hired to cover classes.

Are similar trends occurring in the social sciences and, especially, in sociology? Is
sociology facing a “retirement bubble”? Can we expect a downsizing of sociology
departments over the next decade as the largest cohort of full-time tenured sociologists
ages and retires? Will departments be able to replace them with new tenured or tenure
track full-time hires?

Many older sociologists earned their PhD degrees and assumed academic positions
during the steady periods of growth in sociology that lasted until 1976. After 1976, there
was a steady decline in the number of new PhDs, until 1990 when the numbers began to
slowly increase. In 2001 and 2002, the numbers of new PhDs declined slightly (these are
last years for which data are available from the National Science Foundation’s Division
of Science Resource Statistics). If sociology departments can replace retiring faculty,
new PhDs could face a favorable job market. Under a scenario of financial woes,
however, retiring PhDs might not be replaced, new PhDs could face a tighter job market,
and departments could shrink.

Aging in Sociology Compared to Other Social Sciences

Figure 1 shows an “inverted age pyramid’ among employed PhDs in sociology compared
to economics and political science. PhDs in sociology represent a smaller share of
employed PhDs under age 35, when they are compared to these other two social science
professions. Only 18.5 percent of employed PhDs in these three social science fields are
                                                             sociologists, compared to 51 percent of economists and 30.5 percent of political
                                                             scientists. The share of sociologists increases as they age. In fact, there are more
                                                             sociologists than economists in the 65-69 year old cohort. What do these findings
                                                             suggest for the departures and replacements among academic sociologists?
 Percentage of PhDs of a Given Age within Age Cohort

                                                       90                                                                                2 1.4
                                                                3 0 .5            3 1. 8   2 8 .9    3 1.2             3 1. 3
                                                                         3 5. 6                              3 7. 2             3 3 .8
                                                                                                                                                 Political and Related
                                                                                                                                         46.6    Economics
                                                       50                                  45.8      38.2              39.1     32.0
                                                                5 1. 0            48.1                          35.1
                                                       20                                                                       34.2
                                                                                                     30.5              29.6              32.1
                                                                                           25.4                 27.6
                                                       10       18 . 5   2 1. 3   20.1

                                                              Under 35   35-39    40-44    45-49    50-54    55-59     60-64    65-69    70+
                                                                                                    Age Group

Figure 1: Em ployed Doctoral Social Scientists in Sociology, Political Science, and Econom ics w ithin Age Groups in 2001.

                                     Source: National Science Foundation/Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2001.

                                                             Employment Status of Older Sociologists

                                                             One explanation of the inverted age pyramid is that older sociologists are not leaving full-
                                                             time employment and hence there are fewer to replace. Data from the ASA membership
                                                             database suggest that this explanation is probably not the case. Since 1999, the
                                                             percentage of ASA members over age 65 who report that they are employed full time has
                                                             decreased from 39 percent to 30 percent. Retirement is the reason for the loss of almost
                                                             half of department faculty, according to data from the American Sociological
                                                             Association’s publication, How Does Your Department Compare? A Peer Analysis from
                                                             the 2000-2001 Survey of Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Sociology. In 2000-
                                                             2001, almost 46 percent of faculty left sociology programs as a result of retirement or
                                                             death; only about 4 percent left as a result of the failure to receive tenure, while half left
                                                             for “other” reasons (see Figure 2). This pattern is similar across sociology departments
                                                             located in different types of institutions. These findings suggest that there are potential
                                                             positions for new sociologists.

                                  60%                                        55.6%
Percentage of Departing Faculty

                                                   51.7%             50.6%
                                                           49.4%                                                           50.0%
                                  50%                                                                            45.8%
                                  40%                                                                                              Retirement or Death
                                  30%                                                                                              Failure to Receive
                                  20%                                                                                              Other Reasons

                                              4.5%                                5.0%               5.1%             4.2%
                                            Research           Doctoral          Masters         Baccalaureate     All Programs

                                                                             Institution Type

                                          Figure 2: Reported Reasons For Sociology Faculty Loss, AY 2000-2001

                                        Source: ASA, Survey of Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Sociolog y, 2000-2001.

                                    Another explanation of the inverted age pyramid is that academic sociology programs,
                                    the largest employers of sociologists, are downsizing, and younger sociologists are not
                                    being hired to replace older ones. A third explanation is that relatively more new
                                    economists and political scientists are being hired, although sociology departments are
                                    not downsizing.

                                    Faculty Replacement

                                    As of Academic Year 2000-2001, sociology programs were not facing downsizing.
                                    Instead, the mean number of full-time faculty per department increased slightly since the
                                    previous year. Figure 3 shows that 1.5 full-time sociology faculty members were hired
                                    over the year and 1.4 full-time faculty members departed. The numbers of full-time
                                    faculty hired were greater than the numbers of faculty leaving, regardless of the
                                    institutional location of the sociology program. In fact, there was no significant variation
                                    in the replacement to departure ratio among types of departments, regardless of their
                                    average size.

                                    Not all new faculty hires were tenured or on the tenure-track, however. As Figure 4
                                    shows, there was a slight decrease in tenured or tenure track faculty in sociology
                     departments or programs, on average. About 1.3 new sociology faculty members were
                     hired, compared to 1.4 tenured or tenure track faculty members who departed in AY
                     2000-2001. Sociology programs in institutions classified as “Baccalaureate” experienced
                     the greatest losses, while sociology departments located at “Doctoral” universities,
                     experienced some gains. These findings suggest that sociology programs did not
                     downsize in AY 2000-2001 but, instead, faced some restructuring from tenured faculty
                     toward full-time, non-tenure-track faculty. The possibility that economics and political
                     science experienced stronger growth than sociology is a possibility, but we cannot
                     determine if this is the case as a result of the lack of data on departures and replacements
                     in these academic disciplines.

                    All Programs            1.4
                                                                                                           Number of Faculty Hired
                                                                                                           Number of Faculty Leaving
                   Baccalaureate           1.3
                                                                                                           Number of Faculty
Institution Type

                        Masters             1.3

                        Doctoral           1.2

                       Research                   1.8

                                   0              2               4    6               8         10         12            14     16           18
                                                                                  Mean Number of Faculty

                              Figure 3. Number of Full-Time Faculty Hired in or Leaving Sociology Programs, 2000-2001

                                   Source: ASA, Survey of Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Sociology , 2000-2001.
                                                                                                     Tenure-Track Faculty Hired
                    All Programs        1.4                                                          Tenure-Track Faculty Leaving
                                                                        6.1                          Number of Tenure-Track Faculty
                   Baccalaureate       1.2
Institution Type

                        Masters        1.2

                        Doctoral       1.2

                       Research               1.8

                               0.00         2.00          4.00    6.00        8.00           10.00        12.00        14.00        16.00    18.00
                                                                   Mean Number of Tenure-Track Faculty

                                       Figure 4. Number of Full-Time Tenure-Track Faculty Hired and Departed, 2001-2001

                                       Source: ASA, Survey of Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Sociology , 2000-2001.

                         The Future

                         What does the future hold for sociology departments and programs at different
                         institutional locations? Large-scale retirements can be expected. According to How
                         Does Your Department Compare? about 20 percent of the 2001 sociology faculty is
                         expected to retire by 2007 and about 32 percent by 2012. This finding suggests that
                         sociology departments and programs will be facing a retirement bubble. Some
                         departments have already faced this bubble. There is, however, significant variation by
                         type of institution, with the highest retirement rates expected in sociology departments at
                         doctoral institutions. These departments appear to be replacing departing faculty with
                         full-time faculty, although they may be experiencing fewer replacements than
                         departments of economics and political science. As of 2001, sociology programs did not
                         downsize, on average, but stayed the same. There appears to have been a small shift
                         from tenured to non-tenured faculty, especially at Baccalaureate institutions, over the
                         course of the year.

                         The next round of ASA survey data on baccalaureate and graduate programs will shed
                         light on whether restructuring continues, downsizing begins, or, growth occurs.
Prepared in March 2004 by Roberta Spalter-Roth, Director, and William Erskine, Research
Associate, American Sociological Association, Research Program on the Discipline and the

Suggestion citation: American Sociological Association. 2004. “Are Sociology
Departments Downsizing?” Data Brief (March). Retrieved from

How Does Your Department Compare? A Peer Analysis from the 2000-2001 Survey of
Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Sociology can be ordered on the ASA website
at It is publication number 624.R03.

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